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REVIEW: The City & The City by China Miéville

REVIEW SUMMARY: Police procedural, Miéville style. Dark and probing.


BRIEF SYNOPSIS: In twin cities that could be anywhere, creating the illusion that they aren’t that far from the reader – there’s a murder. In the course of a deceptively simple police procedural, Miéville’s characters ask questions about the nature of what we see, what we don’t, and why.

PROS: This book was like gold for me – a mystery by one of my favorite SF authors; the book brings up interesting questions about what we see daily, and the things we choose to see or not see.
CONS: The navigation of Besz’el and Ul Qoma can be difficult until the reader becomes familiar with the mechanics.
BOTTOM LINE: A tightly plotted murder mystery that raises some interesting philosophical and cultural questions.

In my review of Kraken, I called The City & The City a modern version of Through the Looking Glass, and I think my interpretation stands after a re-read. In Besz’el, Inspector Tyador Borlú is investigating a murder with some unique complications.

As with most Miéville books, there is an active political element to the story. With the divided cities of Besz’el and Ul Qoma, the politics are brought down to a local, tangible level. These things are happening for a reason, and it could be that this unfortunate young woman was brought into the crossfire.

Between Besz’el and Ul Qoma is Breach, the area that drives the story. Breach is known by many names, and it has its own secret shadowy police force, themselves simply known as “Breach.” Borlú is forced to go around Breach – both the physical place and the investigating force – to investigate the woman’s murder.

Borlú’s work is his life, and this case demonstrates that. He and Corwi, the young subordinate he drafts in to help, work together to determine who this woman was, and come to some astonishing conclusions.

To take those conclusions to their next logical step, Borlú must go to Ul Qoma. Together with Senior Detective Quatt of Ul Qoma, Borlú reaches some incredible conclusions. Who is Breach? What is the nature of (a) Breach? What, when it comes down to it, is between the city and the city?

As a commentary on the nature of the cities, it is interesting to note that there is very little visible light in this book. There are no sunny days; there is no really pleasant weather to discuss. In fact, “Holy Light!” is used as an expletive. It wasn’t something I noticed on the first reading, but on the second, it seemed an apt summation of the state of the cities and the people in them.

What drew me to a re-read on The City & The City is that the story works on so many levels. It works as a police procedural. It works as an examination of class distinctions. It works as a biting statement on the things that we, as a society, choose to see and to unsee on a daily basis.

11 Comments on REVIEW: The City & The City by China Miéville

  1. I’m reading this now, and man, it’s a fantastic book. More comments when I finish. 

  2. To my mind this is China’s best novel to date, the depth and beauty of the twin cities is amazing and the feel generated between them was fascinating. Like all of China’s novels it is a tough book to get started but I quickly found myself drawn into his world, first as I strugggled just figure out what was going on but later as I became more impressed with the vision given to creat such a bizarre and yet familar world without the usual magical setting.

  3. Ashley Crump // September 28, 2010 at 11:07 pm //

    Andrew — I look forward to your comments!  CM’s books have been an acquired taste for me, and this one is the first one I have gone back and re-read all the way through.  I found it absolutely worth it.

    Andy — have you read Kraken? *curious* I think you’re right on about the vision needed to create such a world without the usual magical setting.  I either read or saw an interview with CM where he said he worked on this book and Kraken at the same time, and I was amazed.




  4. “The City and The City” was my first read from this author. I really wanted to like it. The novel has gotten praise from critic, bloggers and the SF awards.  However, I was seriously disappointed. For me,  the absurd romantizationof the old Cold War days in Europe was a bit heavy handed. As an allegory it’s just plain ham-fisted. The other major element, the mystery for the lead to solve, moved along at a snails pace.

    The author new book “Kraken” looks interesting, so I might give the author another chance. Maybe. “The City and The City” was a very annoying read.

  5. I reviewed this book for SFF Chronicles here.

  6. @ Ashley – I am reading Kraken at the moment and must admit I am 3/4 of the way through and still waiting to be gripped by the novel, every so often it grabs my attention but I am finding it to confusing and messy to really get into :-/

    To me Kraken reminds me a lot Iron Council, a great idea but a bit to ambitious/ pretentious for my liking.

  7. @ David – I wouldn’t recomend The City and The City as a first read of China’s work. He is a difficult author to read (which is in no way a criticism as he is hugely rewarding when you get into his novels), I would suggest The Scar as probably his most accesible novel, just accept that for the first 50 pages or so everything is going to seem extremely weird.

  8. Ashley Crump // October 1, 2010 at 9:52 am //

    Andy — really? *thoughtful* That’s interesting, because Iron Council was the book I’ve liked least of his.  I told someone the other day I thought I was going to end up doing a mass re-read after this discussion.  Have you read King Rat?

    David K — once I accepted that Kraken was not what I thought it was (it helped that I watched an interview with the author after I’d read 50 or 100 pages explaining a couple of things), I was able to get a much better grip on it.

    Ian — thanks for dropping in!

  9. I have read all of China’s novels.

    King Rat I read after having read Scar (1st China that I read) and Perdido, I found it really quite interesting because I felt that each novel was on a clear progession (in reverse). To me KR seemed to be a very adventerous novel that was also quite cautious, PSS a beautiful picture but done in monochrome and in The Scar China went wild and gave the novel the full on technicolour chracterisation treatment and it was quite honestly stunning.

    Un Lun Dun and The City and The City were both beautifully visualised and fascinating in their own regards and amazing.

    The two that I have struggled with have been Iron Council and still going with Kraken (which is a lot better than IC, but I am still hoping it will grip me – as I haven’t finished it yet I am loath to criticise or comment to much on it yet).


    Any chance you can find that link…..


  10. I finished it last Friday, and for my first China novel, I loved it. My review: 


  11. Ashley Crump // October 5, 2010 at 3:42 pm //

    Andy — I’ll look for it. I *think* it was an interview done (maybe at a booth?) at Comic-Con. If I find it, I’ll post it.

    I’m really going to have to go back and read Un Lun Dun.  It’s the only one I haven’t read yet.  I like the way you see the progression — it’s been so long since I’ve read the Bas-Lag novels, relatively speaking, that again — it makes me want to go back.


    Andrew — excellent! Thanks!

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